Effective policing in Winnipeg?

Commentary, Policing, Frontier Centre

Winnipeg’s police force performs the single most important function of government, ensuring public safety.

The task of putting the thin blue line under the measuring rod of costs and benefits — the basic tool of public policy analysis — therefore assumes more than normal significance. Yet the special status police enjoy in the public eye has largely exempted the police from objective scrutiny. How effective are they? Are they doing the job well or not? Do we get our money’s worth? The answers to these questions reflect in large part the state of our governance.

According to the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Winnipeg’s success rate for crime solving is low. Of the nearly 37,000 property crimes committed in Winnipeg in 1999, only 16% were ever resolved. The clearance rate for crimes of violence is much higher, at 61%, but even that figure is alarmingly low. On average, only 25% of crimes — excluding traffic offences — are solved. Only four cities in Canada do worse. Winnipeg ranks 21st when benchmarked against the country’s 25 major urban areas. And that record is not a one-year statistical fluke, it’s consistent over time.

When the police are asked to explain, their first response is to cite Winnipeg’s high crime rate. But there are problems with that. Winnipeg’s crime rate in 1999 was fifth in the country, at 9,763 criminal incidents per 100,000 residents, but both Regina and Saskatoon, the cities that most closely match our demographics, had much higher rates. Both of them resolve more than 40% of reported incidents. Thunder Bay’s crime rate is almost as high as Winnipeg’s, yet 56% of the crooks there face the music, a success rate more than double ours.

City Police Officers/100,000 People Crimes/Police Officer Crime Clearance Rate Police Cost/Person
Thunder Bay 187 9,109 56% $159
Winnipeg 182 9,763 25% $174
Regina 173 15,191 40% $180
Saskatoon 151 11,640 42% $155
Calgary 132 7,554 32% $168

Source: Police Resources in Canada, 2000, the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 85-225-XIE.

What explains the discrepancy? As the table shows, the resources deployed per capita are similar in the three cities closest to Winnipeg, yet we are much less successful in solving crime. We might assume that the Winnipeg police force is just as well trained and intelligent, yet the numbers show they don’t do as well in protecting us.

Former Chief David Cassells retired early because he was unable to solve this problem. He tried hard, but he ran up against an intractable wall, namely arcane police work-rules.

For example, the Winnipeg Police Service’s policy on two-officer vehicles: Its contract with the City dictates that only two-officer vehicles can be deployed between 7:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. Between 7:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m., one-officer cars may respond to all calls except those considered “high priority,” like a bank robbery or a break-and-enter in progress. If a two-man vehicle is not available, two one-man vehicles must respond to the call together.

What happens if circumstances dictate otherwise? Send nobody? Apparently Cassells’ frustration in dealing with this issue was one reason that prompted his early departure. When you dial 911, you want a quick response, not bureaucratic fussing about the police contract. Saskatoon police officers drive alone until 11:00 p.m.

This fixation on work rules is a common phenomenon in traditional public sector organizations. Without a focus on results administrative processes and procedures configure themselves over time to suit the needs of the professionals hired to deliver them, not the customers who are served by them. The police union’s rigid two-person policy is an example. Many other major cities have managed a more flexible policy that saves money while maintaining service and protecting the safety of officers.

What can be done about it?

While the use of statistics is often fraught with difficulty, it is interesting to note that Calgary’s policing costs are almost the same as Winnipeg’s although our city employs almost 40% more police staff per capita. This suggests there is ample room for a smaller force with higher pay. A recent annual report showed that staffing was deployed as follows: 37% street patrol, 18% detective units, and 45% for administration. This would suggest scope for less administration and a much higher on-street presence particularly in crime hotspots.

More controversially, we could tie salaries and benefits to performance in some way. Pay and other service rewards could be linked to crime clearance stats by neighbourhood districts. As New York City has successfully done, this would encourage rapid deployment of resources into trouble spots, a “no tolerance” policy for graffiti and minor criminal behavior — the so-called “broken windows” theory of crime, which holds that crime increases when the maintenance of public order appears limited — and the related need for a high on-street presence for officers.

Harvey Smith, an inner-city councillor, would seem to have a point crusading for more beat cops in his area. Is he not right to suggest that shifting resources from desk jockeys and two-man patrol cars is a useful way to build a more effective on-street presence? Effective community policing means foot patrols in high-crime areas, beyond local offices with bankers’ hours.

This might also enlist our police community in looking at the longer-term causes of crime, including the unintended consequences of poor economic and social policy. For example, rent controls encourage the abandonment of buildings and arson, and failing schools create the fodder for gangs. Until the many items like these are fixed the pressure to deploy police resources more effectively will intensify.